Boris Johnson Was Missing His Churchill Moment

Foreign Affairs

The pandemic was Boris’s greatest test. He failed.

Boris Johnson is leaving Britain as prime minister. He seems to be unaware that sequels can never be as great as the original. This has led him to make unintentional comparisons with Winston Churchill throughout his career. Instead of being treated like Churchill, he is leaving office hounded by the chastisement previously directed at Neville Chamberlain: “In the name of God, go.”

But this is just half of the tragedy. Boris Johnson is a man who missed the Churchillian glory to which he was aspiring and leaves Downing Street.

This isn’t surprising, as most politicians today seem to be unable to lead. When the 9/11 attacks happened months into George Bush’s tenure, he was given the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents in American history. At first, he assumed that position and united a scared country while promising revenge on terrorists. He then wasted his national goodwill by waging a futile and devastating war in Iraq.

Obama and Trump–all promised great things and often had short-term successes. Each failed to meet the challenge they were faced at crucial points. Although the details may differ in some cases, the general idea is the same. Boris Johnson is a good example of how this phenomenon can be seen across the globe.

Although Johnson was first elected in 2019 on the promise to complete Brexit, his tenure was defined primarily by the pandemic. The immediate cause of his resignation was a sexual-misconduct scandal involving one of his underlings. However, the true cause of Johnson’s ouster was undoubtedly “Partygate“–a series of unsurprising revelations that Johnson and his top lieutenants had, like politicians everywhere, repeatedly defied their own public-health restrictions.

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Under Johnson Britain experienced some of the most severe pandemic lockdowns anywhere in the world. It’s amazing to think that almost they didn’t.

In those fatal few weeks of March 2020, Johnson’s government was much slower to impose all-consuming measures than most other European countries. When Johnson finally announced the nationwide lockdown on March 23, a CNN analyst asked, “What took Boris Johnson so long?” The reason, the analyst concluded, was that Johnson is “not naturally comfortable with removing anyone’s personal liberties.” Throughout his long political career, Johnson had shown a libertarian streak and a rare tendency towards common sense. His instincts proved correct, just like Trump’s.

Johnson was ultimately inspired to change course by Britain’s Fauci, Dr. Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London researcher who worked for the government until he was forced to resign for breaking lockdowns himself to sleep with his married mistress. Ferguson, in a hugely influential study published in March 2020, recommended “social distancing of the entire population” for 18 months or more until a vaccine was developed.

This solution was pioneered in China by the People’s Republic of China. It was at that time unheard of in Britain and other Western countries. But Ferguson was itching to implement it, and he later marveled at how easy it had been to import Chinese policy: “[China is] a communist one party state, we said. It was impossible to do it in Europe. We thought… then it happened. We realized that we could if China hadn’t done it .”

When Johnson’s idol, Winston Churchill, first came to power in 1940, France was in the process of falling to Nazi Germany. The other major European powerhouses had all fallen. Britain was for a while the only defender of West Europe, and Churchill was at the helm. Churchill refused to compromise with Hitler, even when his ministers tried to convince him.

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This was the noble mantle Johnson has always aspired for. He faced just such a defining moment in March of 2020. All of the world surrendered to China’s People’s Republic of China. They adopted its totalitarian strategy for controlling disease. We surrendered, unlike France and Poland during World War II. Boris Johnson, a British rebel, was the only man who was well placed to resist this.

Instead, the United Kingdom was made a police nation.

In March of 2021, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was raped and murdered in London by a police officer who, according to the New York Times, “conducted ‘a false arrest’ for breaching lockdown guidelines, to get Ms. Everard into his car.” A witness chose not to intervene because they thought Everard “had done something wrong.” This was Boris Johnson’s Britain, in which the social contract between citizen and government was violated so thoroughly that such a heinous abuse occurred in plain sight.

While Everard’s terrible fate may be an exception, it is clear that lockdowns in Britain have wrought havoc on many people’s lives, just as they did in the United States. It will take many decades to unravel the economic and social consequences of this terrible mistake. Worse, Johnson helped legitimize the principle of public-health-over-freedom that will surely rear its ugly head again and again, haunting us for decades to come. Perhaps herpes is the proper metaphor for disease.

Johnson admired Churchill enough to write a book on him, praising the man’s eccentricity, his bombast, and his tendency to “behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.” Ultimately, Johnson showed himself to have the bombast, but not the backbone.

Imagine a world where Boris Johnson declared that he wouldn’t shut down the United Kingdom and that everyone would be free to do their own business taking any personal precautions that they wished. Perhaps he even used the most British slogan: “Keep calm, carry on.” He would be very popular for a while. He would be called a number of names by the media. It would have been the Churchillian act to continue to hold the truth to his face, not to yield to the apparent overwhelming power of the enemy .”

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Johnson chose instead to “save our lives.”

Imagine if that logic had been applied by Britons to German bombs in 1940–that death should be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of one’s freedom and dignity. That line of thought would have led to Hitler’s quick surrender.

The sad end to Johnson’s term as Prime Minister is a fitting metaphor for our ruined times. The next British prime minister or American president may be the one who can overcome our problems with virtue and leonine courage that will place them in the top tier of the greats. We will need to wait longer, though, because the past is the most reliable predictor for the future.

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